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Happy retirement

9:41 AM  Sep 13th, 2018
by Debbie Juniewicz

If you’re looking for a full day spent in a comfy recliner, look elsewhere. These five University of Dayton retirees have tapped into their happy to pursue everything from art to beekeeping. For some, retirement has launched a second career or built a second home.   

It has also meant a role reversal. These experts in their respective fields, having spent decades as educators or administrators, found themselves starting over, often as novices in their new endeavors.

Time and persistence have paid off and gained them a proficiency that is only surpassed by their ongoing eagerness to live a happy retirement.

Phil Doepker ’64

His wish list was short but set in stone. Phil Doepker ’64, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, had long wanted to buy property: It
had to be in Ohio, be at least 10 acres, and have plenty of trees and water of some sort.

“I fell in love with every property I found,” he said with a smile. “My wife was my conscience,
making sure I got everything I was looking for and not settling.”

Several years and more than 25 property visits later, Doepker had found it — 22 densely wooded acres in Darke County, Ohio, about an hour northwest of Dayton.

“I called my wife and said, ‘I think this is it.’”

And it was.

They purchased the property in 2006 and planned to build a cabin near the pond. Doepker’s plans were waylaid a bit as he participated in the development of the University of Dayton China Institute shortly after his retirement in 2011. By 2013, the professor emeritus was consulting with a forester onsite. Walnut, oak, cherry, poplar and ash were all in great supply, which was ideal as he wanted to build the structures from the trees on his property. Initial thoughts were to build a modest 300- to 500-square-foot cabin, but when he realized that more than 100 ash trees would have to be harvested because of the emerald ash borer, his plan expanded.

The harvest amounted to 30,000 board feet of lumber. The modest cabin doubled in size, and a barn was also now on the drawing board.

“I came up with designs for the trusses and determined the strength of the materials,” he said. “I was doing on my property the kinds of things I taught in class. If I wanted to relax, I’d draw or make calculations.”

Doepker went from architect to project manager as he hired a construction team and acquired all the necessary permits. There was even a little of UD in his construction plans: A walk he took across campus nearly 20 years ago netted him some of the old St. Mary’s Hall windows discarded during the historic building’s renovation. He pulled them out of the dumpster and repurposed 10 of those windows — rounded tops and all — in their cabin.

The distance from the main road made running a power line cost-prohibitive, so Doepker decided to use solar panels to power his 904-square-foot cabin.

“With the exception of a delivery of propane once a year, we are pretty much off the grid,” said Doepker, 73.

Once the construction crew finished, Doepker went to work on the interior, including, most recently, an IKEA-designed kitchen.

While he and Bonnie — the couple just recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary — reside primarily in Springboro, Ohio, Doepker is at the cabin at least three times a week, spending a few nights a month.

“I could live out there,” he said. “And it has become a focal point for social gatherings with family and friends.”

And there is no better feeling than watching his adventurous 4-year-old granddaughter chasing frogs around the 1-acre pond — his 1-acre pond.

Carroll Schleppi

When her husband, John Schleppi, was offered a buyout from the School of Education and Allied Professions, Carroll Schleppi knew it was time to retire in 2001 from her position in the Department of Mathematics.

“There was no way I was going to get up to go to work if he wasn’t,” she said, smiling.

The professor emeritus, who taught at UD for 17 years, soon found another rewarding reason to get up in the morning.

“The first thing I did was pursue my love of art with quilts,” she said. “I would have loved to have studied art or philosophy when I went to college, but my dad said I needed to be able to make a living, so I went with math.”

The freedom of retirement finally let the now 76-year-old pursue her artistic passion. Fabric was a natural choice for the mother of three who took sewing lessons as a child and created clothes for her family when she was a stay-at-home mom. Schleppi’s idea of quilting, however, is not what many think of when they hear the term — no cookie cutter patterns or traditional designs. Schleppi is an art quilter — exactly what it sounds like — creating original works of art with fabric as her canvas.

“The first thing I found out about traditional quilting was that I didn’t like it because I don’t like to follow the rules,” she said. “I was drawn to art quilting because you don’t have rules.”

Schleppi, who lives in Kettering, Ohio, discovered the Miami Valley Art Quilt Network, and her passion was ignited.

“We consider ourselves fiber artists,” she said. “We paint with fabric instead of oils or acrylics.”

Her work is varied, from quirky puns to nature and history. She was part of a project celebrating the Negro Leagues and is currently working on a project celebrating the 19th Amendment. Each artist selected a suffragette to commemorate. Schleppi chose Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an African-American poet, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

“I think it was her poetry that made me choose her — the fact that it was written so many years ago yet is contemporary today,” Schleppi said.

Schleppi’s work has won awards and been displayed in museums, but neither are the reason she creates. She is both an artist and a storyteller and said she enjoys the process more than the finished product. And she finds a way to interweave her many excursions into her quilts as she uses fabric she has gathered during her world travels. From a bag of scraps purchased from a silk factory in China to clothing found in European thrift stores and fabric bought at her favorite shop in the Caribbean island of Curacao, the quilts
are a product of her imagination and her travels.

While quilting brings her great joy, she keeps very few of her many finished pieces.

“Once I’m finished, I feel no ownership,” she said. “For me, the joy is in the creation, not in the result. When it’s over, I’m happy to let it go.”

And, then, it’s on to the next one.

Dick Ferguson ’73

Dick Ferguson ’73 saw firsthand the power of touch when his mother was living with dementia. Ferguson watched as her condition silenced and isolated his once outgoing and articulate mom.

“But I found that if I gently rubbed her hand and massaged her face, she was able to communicate and tell the story of her life,” he said. “It was dramatic to me, the change I saw in in her.”

Those cherished moments with his mom — Ferguson describes them as “spiritual” — contributed to his decision to pursue an encore career as a licensed massage therapist. After spending more than four decades on the University of Dayton campus — serving in a variety of positions including admission counselor, director of University communications, assistant dean of the School of Law, associate provost, assistant to the president and his final position as the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community executive director, from which he retired in 2014 — the Beavercreek, Ohio, resident was ready for a change.

“That first year after I retired I spent writing about leadership, but I found it to be a lonely experience,” he said. “I wanted to find something that was less cerebral after more than 40 years in higher education.”

Little did Ferguson know how academically rigorous his new pursuit would be. Challenging classes in anatomy, physiology, business and ethics filled his days. Of the 28 students who enrolled in the program with Ferguson, only nine graduated with him a year later and were licensed by the State Medical Board of Ohio.

“I was 65, in class with 22-year-olds, and it was an incredibly challenging experience,” he said. “I am jealous now of those in the medical profession. I think if I had taken anatomy and physiology in high school or college, I definitely would have gone into some kind of medicine.”

Ferguson has been practicing therapeutic massage since December 2016, giving more than 800 massages in his first 18 months. He practices in three facilities, working as many as six days a week. At 67 years old, however, he knows his limitations.

Two or three massages per day is my limit so I can still feel retired and be able to stand,” he said with a smile.

The self-proclaimed “old guy in massage” cherishes the opportunity to introduce people to the many benefits of massage. He provides as many as 80 percent of his massages free of charge or at a significant discount to encourage people to give it a try. But his clients aren’t the only ones who reap the benefits of Ferguson’s encore career.

“I find this as rewarding as anything I’ve done professionally,” he said. “It’s a role I can play that’s a different kind of service to the community.

“And there’s just something about human touch that we really need in this world.”

Patti Procuniar

Winters were challenging for outdoor enthusiast Patti Procuniar, so January and February meant regular kickboxing classes for many years to keep her busy and active. But when that class was canceled, she and her husband decided to take a beekeeping class offered by the Greene County, Ohio, Park District. Before long, Bill Procuniar built several hives on the couple’s Sugarcreek Township property, southeast of Dayton.

It’s not unusual for the couple to get a call from a neighbor and head out to collect a swarm — essentially a ball of bees surrounding a queen that has escaped from a hive. With a baseball bat, Bill Procuniar whacks the tree limb from which the swarm hangs, while Patti Procuniar — wearing a beekeeper’s veil — holds a box with a funnel attached to catch the falling swarm. The swarm usually weighs in at 4 or 5 pounds.

“We’re not the brave people climbing huge ladders, but catching a good swarm is really exciting,” she said.

Even after several years of beekeeping, however, Procuniar’s disbelief is still apparent.

“I never thought I could do this; it’s hard to imagine that we are actually beekeepers,” she said, smiling.

But beekeepers they are. In fact, a shipment of more than 10,000 bees that arrived in April got the couple’s 2018 hives going. By the end of the summer, that number will likely have increased to 45,000 in that one hive alone — 45,000 of her babies.

“We are also master gardeners, and when I’m outside, they will walk on my arms,” said Procuniar, who retired in 2015 as a program assistant with the Center for International Programs after working at UD for nearly 26 years. “They’re just very dear.”

That’s not to say they don’t misbehave at times; the 68-year-old has had as many as 11 stings on one hand. But the minor pain is no match for the payoff.

“We think it’s just wonderful for the environment and so important for pollination,” she said. “And they are such fascinating creatures.”

Even several years into her pastime/passion, that fascination continues to grow. As members of the Greene County Beekeepers, she and her husband attend monthly meetings, and the learning never ends.

There is a class with the meeting, and it’s always good information,” Procuniar said. “Before we got started, it was hard to imagine us as beekeepers. Now it’s hard to imagine us not doing it.”

Jerry Strange

Jerry Strange’s first foray into music was short-lived.

“I was 7 or 8 years old, and my mother had me take piano lessons,” said Strange ’57, who was on the UD math faculty for 41 years before retiring in 2000. “After a few weeks of not practicing, she said she wasn’t going to pay for lessons anymore. So, I went through the rest of my life, until I was 70,
enjoying music but not playing it.”

Strange and his wife of close to six decades, Hylda, both enjoy music. It was on a trip from the couple’s home in Centerville, Ohio, to their weekend house in Ripley, Ohio, that Strange became intrigued by a folk instrument known as a dulcimer.

“We had gone to a dulcimer concert, and I thought, ‘I really like the sound of that music,’” he said. “And a dulcimer only has three strings. I figured it had to be reasonably easy to play. I had this fantasy that I was going to showcase my musical talent and become a dulcimer player of some repute.”

For more than a decade, the professor emeritus has been fine-tuning his dulcimer skills. He plays with a small group on most weekends and practices daily. Strange said he knows 25 or 30 songs from memory, but he would be the last one to call himself a musician — more, he said, “like a robot that has been taught how to play music.”

“One thing I’ve discovered about myself as a result of this experiment is that I’m very poor at multitasking,” he said. “For example, I can’t read music and play at the same time. Some people think I’m a musician because I can memorize a piece and play it, but I don’t think that qualifies me as a

That’s not to say the 83-year-old isn’t having a great time playing the dulcimer.

“I really enjoyed being at UD; I can’t think of anything I could have done for 40 years that could have been better,” he said. “You might have thought someone who was so attached to the University would have a tough time adjusting to retirement, but when the time came, I pretty much gave up mathematics and teaching and put my energy into developing other interests — like playing the mountain dulcimer.”

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Back in (the silver and) black

4:09 PM  Sep 7th, 2018
by Michelle Tedford

Oakland Raiders football fans will see a familiar face on the sidelines this year — head coach Jon Gruden, who last coached for the team in 2001. And fans of the University of Dayton Flyers might also recognize something familiar. Gruden, a 1986 UD communication graduate, played back-up quarterback for Flyer football team. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he became in 2003 the youngest head coach at that time to win the Super Bowl, and for the last nine seasons he’s provided color commentary for ESPN’s Monday Night Football. We caught up with Gruden to ask about everything from his days wearing the red and blue to today’s colors of choice, silver and black.

First UD dorm room?
I lived up on the hill, Stuart Hall.

Last UD house?
I lived on 1532 Brown St. with Rob Diorio and Mike Bencivenni. We had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t the Taj Mahal, if you know what I mean.

Favorite Milano’s sub?
Meatball, every Wednesday and every Saturday night.

Why Wednesdays and Saturdays?
My mom would send me some money, and it would get there on Wednesday, and I usually had enough left on Saturday to get my meatball sub. I was eating at the dorm the first couple years, then I moved off campus and I really struggled to eat, so Milano’s meatball sandwich came through — it was a real clutch situation.

Favorite place to study on campus?
I used to go to the library back when there was a place that had books and people would actually go and look at books. There were quiet carrels and I would go in and study there. Then I started drinking coffee, and we would go to a couple of the 24-hour breakfast places like Denny’s.

When was the last time you were on campus?
A couple years ago. We had a game in Cincinnati so we took the Monday Night Football bus to campus. We ate at that great steak house right next to Timothy’s, the legendary Pine Club. It was awesome — had the onion straws. Then we knocked on the door at 1532 Brown St., and there were some young ladies that were living there. I introduced myself and asked is there any way I could get a tour of this place. I think Mike Tirico [Monday Night Football play-by-play announcer] was with me. I showed him where we used to live, and it just brought back great memories. I got to reunite with Mike Kelly, my old UD football coach.

Describe coach Mike Kelly in three words.
Energetic, passionate and consistent. He’s very energetic — he drives too fast to get to work. He just loves every day, he loves Dayton, he loves football, he loves to see young people get better, and he’s consistent or relentless — one of those two words. That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer, and I’m very fortunate to have played for him.

You came to UD to play quarterback and spent a lot of time on the bench as back-up. Were you disappointed?
I was very disappointed. Nobody wants to sit on the bench. But I was very proud too, very proud to have stuck it out. I got to play in games. I got to hold for extra points and field goals. I got to mop up some games. Mike Kelly made sure when we got a 45-point lead and there was less than 3 minutes left — he made sure the lead was safe — he put me in for some duty. Look, I had a blast, I had a blast. I wouldn’t change anything. I told my sons that, I tell a lot of players that. I say, “Hey being part of a team, you don’t have to be an All-American or first-string all-conference. You still get the benefits of being on a team.” A lot of people today quit, they transfer, they give it up, but I’m really proud of the fact that I sucked it up and I finished.

Name one lesson learned you carry with you today.
You still have a big role on the team. I was scout team quarterback; I played on special teams; I was backup — I knew the plays, I was ready to go if needed. Everybody has a role — it may not be the role that you want, but whether you are in business or whether you’re in the military or you’re on the police force, everybody on the force has a role and every role is very important, so I took pride in my role. I remember when I got recognized with the Andy Zulli Award for having a good attitude and working hard — that is probably still today the most important award that I’ve ever received.

What did you think every time an NFL coaching job opened and your name was brought up?
I never really wanted to get out of coaching. I got traded once and I got fired once, and when I got fired and the game was taken away from me I never thought I’d take long to get back in it. But I really started liking Monday Night Football. I got to see other teams practice, I got to meet the players, I got to see their facilities, I got treated first-class at ESPN. We had a blast. Mike Tirico and I became best friends; I loved working with Ron Jaworski; and the producer and director, Jay Rothman and Chip Dean, have become two of my best friends. I’d look forward to going on the road. Then we got to do Gruden’s QB camp, I got to be an analyst on the draft, I got access to the video, I did clinics, I mean I was just the busiest I had ever been. So to answer your question I was having a heck of a lot of fun. I really thought about coming back several times, but I was really involved in football, I just wasn’t coaching. But I was coaching, I had quarterbacks coming to my office, I had coaches coming down, we had a lot of fun, but I think the timing was just right this time and emotionally I was ready to go.

In stories about you accepting the Raiders’ coaching position, you are reported to have said the football gods were calling you one more time. How did they speak to you?
I’m a very simple person, but I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have coached it, I got to play college football at a great program, and I got to broadcast it. And I kind of feel like when you get to be 54 years old, in quiet moments you get to reflect on how fast time has flown by and what you get to do with the rest of your life. I just kind of felt this calling to come back and coach, and try it one more time, and see if we can help the Oakland Raiders. This is a special place to me, my wife and I had our third son here, we were here for four great years and we kind of felt there was some unfinished business that we’d like to see if we can resolve.

Why the Raiders?
I loved the Raiders as a kid growing up, and Al Davis [Raiders then-owner and general manager] gave me, as a young coach, an opportunity that very few young people get. I think I was 34 years old when I became the head coach of the team. They have so much tradition. When you close your eyes and you think of the silver and black, you think of the Raiders. They’ve had numerous Hall of Fame players, they’ve had a storied history, and I really took a lot of pride trying to restore that.

Your dad, Jim Gruden, is a veteran of collegiate and professional football. You and brother Jay are NFL coaches. Your brother James is a doctor. If you were the normal brother, what would you be doing instead?
Probably the 6 o’clock sports on local TV somewhere. I was a communication major. You know that education I got at Dayton came in handy. They taught us LOMM — large open moving mouth. Enunciate your words. Speak clearly. Some of those persuasive speaking classes I took came in big-time handy.

Why UD?
My dad had coached at Dayton under John McVay in the very early 1970s. It was a coaches’ cradle. George Perles, Len Fontes, John McVay, Tom Moore — there were some great coaches that came through Dayton. I wanted to be a coach, and I really felt that the AstroTurf stadium, the winning atmosphere, the University of Dayton, the history, we lived in Kettering when I was a kid, it was just a hotbed of football — football had a lot to do with it. Obviously education is really important, and it had a lot to offer, but the familiarity of Dayton, the tradition of their football program, and just kind of following my dad’s footsteps had a lot to do with it.

Five words to describe UD.
Diversity — it’s a Catholic school, but it has something for everyone.
Competitive — it was competitive on the football field, it was competitive in the classroom, and I just felt good about waking up there every day and knowing I was going to be pushed.


We asked Jon Gruden’s former Flyers coach Mike Kelly, “What three words would you use to describe Jon Gruden?”
He’s a grinder, he’s committed and he’s strategic.

Their senior years, I did exit interviews with my guys. I asked them all to tell me what they’re going to be doing in 10 years. Jon comes in, points a finger at me from across the room and says, “Coach, I don’t know where I’m going to be in 10 years, but by the age of 40 I’m going to be the head coach of Michigan.” Here’s this guy — he wasn’t a starter, but he was a player. How’s he going to be a head coach?

After graduation, Jon got a position as a graduate assistant at Tennessee, and he was strategic in his moves from that moment on. He grinded his butt off. And by the age of 39, he told a major college program that shall remain nameless, “No, thank you.” He made it.

* A shorter version of this interview appeared in the Autumn 2018 University of Dayton Magazine.


Writing life’s next chapter

2:31 PM  Aug 29th, 2018
by Jeaneen Parsons

Everyone knows life has many chapters. For Mark Kelly ’59, a mechanical engineering graduate, chapter one has our protagonist growing up on a farm in northern Ohio during the Great Depression. Chapter two finds him on a Navy destroyer serving his country during the Korean War. Chapter three picks up at the University of Dayton; Kelly takes full advantage of college life where in his words he was a “dual major in engineering and having fun,” and where he met his future wife, a Flyerette named Donna DeVoe ’59.

Chapter four is a long one where Kelly marries, helps Donna raise four children and builds not one, but two, successful careers in engineering and in finance. That chapter ends when Kelly retires at the age of 70. And then the story takes an interesting turn.

“I joined a writer’s group at the local library and had no intention of writing a book until they suggested it,” Kelly
said. “Back in college, Brother Stan Matthews, S.M., suggested that I write, but I was too busy with other endeavors.” (See chapters three and fo

That brings us to the current chapter lasting nearly 15 years where Kelly became an author and by age 84 has published
six books. “Brother Stan lived long enough to read my first two books, and he couldn’t have been more complimentary,” Kelly sai

Most of his books are biographical. Kelly recounts his adolescence and teenage years in The Urchins and The Barons. The Warriors covers his Navy adventures. The Mansion, The Dirty Double and Frank Street chronicle his years at UD where so much of what shaped his future would transpire.

With chapters left to write, what’s next? “At present I’m trying to find a producer to adapt my books for a television series,” Kelly said. In the meantime, Kelly and his Flyer sweetheart are home in Michigan as they savor the happy ending of a life well lived.

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On the prairie

11:30 AM  Aug 20th, 2018
by Michelle Tedford ’94

It was the middle of the night in Dayton, Aug. 25, 2017, but Chelse Prather kept waking up to watch the live video feed of Hurricane Harvey slamming into Texas.

Problem was, it was the middle of the night in Galveston, too. All she could see on the screen was black.

“I was texting a lot with my friends when it was hitting. I was worried about our friends staying safe,” said ecologist Prather, an assistant professor of biology. “I was also worried about this experiment.”

Prather was more than two years into field work on a half-million-dollar research project. Like any good hurricane, Harvey had sucked up the warm waters of the ocean and let them rain down over land — in this case, on her experiment site, a coastal tallgrass prairie 13 miles inland from Galveston. In the next two days, 43 inches of rain would fall on the plants and animals living there.

First, there was the question of what the rain would wash away. But there were also questions about what the rain would bring, most likely calcium and sodium, abundant in seawater. Problem is, for the two previous years, Prather had carefully and deliberately manipulated the quantities of these and other nutrients on the prairie.

Her goal is to better understand the effects of human-induced environmental change, specifically if a combination of practices as common as agricultural fertilization and irrigation could be setting us up for a plant-eating insect boom — insects that devour food we intend for ourselves and our livestock. Planet-wide, humans are changing the distribution of plants and animals while also altering the abundance of nutrients available for life to grow.

What would become of her experiment?

“I call it the confounding factor of the hurricane,” Prather said.

So, with Harvey still raining down but much of the danger having passed, she asked friends in Texas to brave the rain and stake Tupperware containers to the ground to collect Harvey rainwater, and send water samples back to Dayton. If she could figure out what was in the water, she could use the information to adjust her data and just maybe collect one of the first before-and-after comparisons of the impact of hurricanes on the prairie.

She’d have to wait until May to see the prairie — and what the hurricane left behind — for herself.

More than 1,100 miles from

UD, the University of Houston Coastal Center is paradise for an ecologist looking to understand the relationships between plants, insects and the micronutrients — minerals such as calcium, potassium and sodium — both need to thrive.

Paradise, that is, if you overlook the suffocating heat, biting insects and dewberry thorns that tear at your flesh and open wounds ready to scream at the next application of sunscreen.

“It takes a certain kind of person to thrive,” said Prather, who for four summers has handpicked students to join the research project, supported by a $546,599 award from the National Science Foundation. “You have to be real comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Prather knows the Texas heat well. In 2011, she joined the UH Coastal Center as a postdoctoral fellow at a time when the center was looking to attract significant government funding. She and collaborator Steve Pennings, professor of biology at UH, submitted and refined the prairie micronutrient study three times before receiving the coveted and highly competitive grant.   

The research is focusing on grasshoppers, important for the native ecosystem but a bane to ranchers and farmers, who spend $1 billion annually to control the plant-eating insects. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is interested in Prather’s results and added $150,000 in funding to monitor grasshopper diversity in a related collaboration with UH research assistant professor Angela Laws.

“This type of information could actually help us predict [grasshopper] outbreaks better and has lots of implications for how we manage these systems,” Prather said.

UD added funding through its STEM Catalyst Initiative — in 2017 for a collaboration with biology colleague Yvonne Sun to analyze how changes in nutrients affect the grasshopper’s gut, and in 2018 to support the related research of her graduate students.

One of those students, Ryan Reihart ’14, is focusing on the tawny crazy ant, named for its fast, erratic movements. It’s a non-native species that’s invading the South. In cities, it’s eating wiring and shorting out televisions in homes. In 2012, it scurried into Prather’s experiment site. Reihart is on the forefront of discovering how diet might either contain or encourage the ants.

Reihart, who trapped and counted 51,000 crazy ants last summer, was worried Hurricane Harvey might have drowned all of his prairie-dwellers. But a researcher visiting in winter reported some colonies had survived.

A doctoral student on Prather’s Insect Ecology Lab team who previously received an undergraduate degree from UD, Reihart headed to Texas in May for his second summer of prairie fieldwork. This summer he is joined by master’s student Emily Jones and recent May graduates Shania Hurst and Kiersten Angelos, plus four students from UH. They are spending long days setting traps for ants to fall into, counting and clipping plant species, digging soil samples and twisting insect nets through the breeze in a hypnotic dance. They are also helping Jones set up experiments that could determine if three interconnected invasive species, including the crazy ant, are helping one another to spread.

For Reihart, it’s a welcome opportunity to sink into the grasses and immerse himself in the field.

“We also try to have fun, too, while we’re out there,” Reihart said. “It can get hot, and we can get hungry and cranky, but we always just make it fun, like who can do [the task] the fastest. … It’s just awesome being outside, being with people who are fun in the field.”

In wet summers, prairie grasses can grow 8 feet tall, a sea of rustling green and nodding flower heads — first yellow sunflowers, then the brilliant green of the plant Rattlesnake Master, before finally erupting in the late-season purple blooms of the native Blazing Star. Long, hot, wet growing seasons result in lots of data for scientists to work with.

“These are really gorgeous prairies that have upwards of 600 species of plants, and we’ve recorded 800 species of insects,” Prather said.

Prather said it’s a rare privilege to work in a coastal tallgrass prairie — less than one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s coastal prairies still exist, primarily because they are so good at producing the rich soils coveted for agriculture.

This prairie survived Houston’s boom thanks in part to World War II. Formerly known as Camp Wallace, the site was used by the military for training antiaircraft units and then as a naval boot camp. In recent years, a garbage dump grew to the west, a dog-racing track to the north and a highway to the east, reserving the interior 1,000 acres of prairie and woods for today’s many researchers. Last year, the Texas state legislature acknowledged the importance of the center by designating
it the Texas Institute of Coastal Prairie Research and Education.

On Google maps, you get a bird’s eye view of the grid mowed into the interior prairie, more than 29 acres divided into 128 plots. It’s the beating heart of the Insect Ecology Lab’s work.

During 2016 and 2017, Prather and her students donned safety glasses and wrapped bandanas around their mouths and noses. By the handful or with the help of a four-wheeler, they spread 10 tons of fertilizer each year on the plots in different nutrient combinations. Among the choices for their fertilizer combination were the micronutrients calcium, potassium and sodium — required in trace amounts for plant and insect growth — and the macronutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, now abundant in most soils thanks to common agricultural practices.

The goal, Pennings said, is to determine if combinations of nutrients result in plots that are more habitable — and plants that are tastier — to the herbivore insects. These would be nutrient combinations ranchers and farmers might wish to avoid.

If certain fertilizer combinations result in less tasty plots, they could be used as an alternative to current methods of pest control, often involving blanket pesticides on cropland and ranchland.

Pennings, who is also director of the UH Coastal Center, said the results could have wider implications. Take the northern United States, where communities commonly treat icy roadways with products that include calcium and sodium. Or in the Plains States, where irrigation practices bring water higher in sodium to agricultural lands.

“If sodium or calcium turns out to be important, are we unwittingly increasing grasshopper populations?” Pennings asked.

Prather can sit in her office in Sherman Hall and share facts that would make most people squirm — like that the average home has 100 species of insects living among its humans. (She does point out that, without the insects that eat dead insects, you’d be more aware of just how many you cohabit with.)

It’s hard to believe there was once a time when every insect made her scream in terror.

When she was 5, her well-meaning father, intent on helping a young Chelse conquer her fear, had her extend a shaky finger to touch the shiny emerald armor of a docile Japanese beetle.

As she did, another beetle swooped down and snagged the green bug for its lunch.

“I was really freaked out, but I think it spurred something in me — ‘What in the world just happened?’” she said. “I needed to discover for myself that there was all this stuff going on in the natural world all around you all the time. You’re not thinking about it, and the fact is that most people are not thinking about it.”

As an undergraduate at University of Kentucky, Prather said fieldwork got her excited to pluck rocks from a stream and wonder at the multitude of insects living underneath. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame, she followed insects called walking sticks through the forest floor in Puerto Rico to better understand their eating habits and how that influenced the rainforest ecology. 

With her long blond hair pulled back in a perpetual braid, and her nails trimmed to the quick, she has an air of being ready to bolt outdoors at any moment.

“Most of us were the kids outside playing in the mud, catching every animal that we saw in the yard, and I’ve heard a lot of ecologists say we just never really grew out of that,” she said. “I love that that can be a permanent part of my job and that I get to introduce that to students.”

As an assistant professor at Radford University in Virginia from 2014 to 2016, she enjoyed making science accessible and applicable to her undergraduates. In one class, they updated the Wikipedia pages of the insects they were researching — and then counted the web hits. “By the end of the class, the pages that 13 students had updated had been viewed 1.5 million times,” she said. “It’s interesting and fun for the students to do work related to science that will have people other than
scientists as the receivers of that work.”

While at Radford, Prather realized her NSF grant required the intensive attention only graduate students could provide, and Radford did not have a graduate program in biology. She chose to make the move to the University of Dayton, in part because she said she takes the role of graduate mentor very seriously.

“You’re trying to teach somebody how to be an independent scientist,” she said of her graduate students. “The fact that it was a small program meant that I could give the students the type of attention they need — and deserve.”

She’s also maintained an interest in cultivating tomorrow’s researchers through opportunities for undergraduates. This year, nine undergraduates volunteered in Prather’s lab. Among them was Amanda Finke.

As a sophomore, Finke started work by pulling Ziploc bags of prairie soil from the freezer. She’d open the bags — letting free the sweet prairie scent trapped inside in Texas — and then carefully separate roots from soil.

Her volunteer duties were small tasks on the half-million-dollar micronutrient project, but Finke said Prather took the time to give her the big-picture explanation. Finke said it helped her understand how her work contributed, and also how the mind of an ecologist teases out tasks for such a complicated project.

Prather also encouraged Finke to find her own research path.

In May, Finke graduated with a bachelor’s in environmental biology and a year of Ohio prairie research under her belt. This summer, as a UD master’s student, Finke continues her investigation of insects found in Dayton area prairies. Just as Prather is doing, Finke is looking beyond the plants to the insects to gauge the health of the ecosystem. 

“It’s what I do,” Finke said of her ecology research. “I can’t imagine not doing it now.”

She said Prather teaches students how to be good scientists while also navigating what it means to be a career scientist — including chasing the grants and writing the results.

“You can tell how passionate she is about her work,” Finke said, “and it gets you excited that she’s excited.”

Master’s student Jones used the words “driven” and “motivated” to describe Prather. In fieldwork last summer, Jones said she marveled at the speed at which Prather counted the species of plants growing there.

“We don’t know how she can possibly do everything she can, and that’s inspiring to be around someone that is capable of juggling all the things she does and is succeeding,” Jones said.

The 35-year-old mother of a 4-year-old son, Prather acknowledged that when the public and students alike conjure the image of an outdoor ecologist, her face does not spring to mind.

“I didn’t participate in science in high school because of this stigma — if you’re a scientist, you’re a dork,” she said. “And it’s a shame that part of it is still there, that stigma still exists. You can tell by the number of people who commonly participate in class.”

Pennings said scientists like Prather are changing the perception of an ecologist and passing it on to a new generation.

She’s also part of a change happening within the field. Pennings points to the NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research Network. LTER is unraveling ecological science and sharing information in ways beneficial to other ecologists as well as policymakers and resource managers. Having participated in research at the Luquillo LTER site in Puerto Rico, Prather also imparts a new way of learning to her students.

“Chelse’s a prime example of carrying the mindset out into the ecological community and being comfortable as a collaborator, being comfortable with the idea of sharing data, which was not part of the ecological culture in the past,” Pennings said.

At a brown bag session, Prather asked her students their opinions on the major issues in ecology worth looking into. It was a daunting task, said one grad student, but it began to open for them the world of interrelationships — within nature and among researchers — that are vital for the field to evolve.

Prather will take her quest for collaboration a step further in coming months. After publication of her findings, she plans to make the raw data from her macronutrient experiment available online for anyone to access. It should help other researchers interested in building on her work or applying it to other ecosystems — or even other natural disasters.

“For me it’s important to understand these bigger patterns,” Prather said. “The interesting thing about asking these big, complex questions is whatever you’re trying to understand depends on the context. The question I think I’m more interested in is is there generality in that context dependency: Can we predict how things will act depending on a set of circumstances?”

Back in Texas, Prather and her students in May unloaded a couple of vehicles full of equipment and ventured out into the coastal tallgrass prairie, their first chance to collect data since Hurricane Harvey. Before they left Dayton, they knew the hurricane had destroyed the greenhouses and lab building. What they had yet to discover was if all the supplies — carefully labeled and stacked for this year’s fieldwork — could be salvaged, and how the plants and animals had responded to 43 inches of rain.

During the hurricane, Pennings was one of those standing outside collecting rainwater. As he watched the neighborhood bayou overflow and creep ever-closer to his house, Pennings placed a blue 5-gallon bucket on his concrete patio. “I had to empty it twice, 24 hours apart, because it was overflowing,” he said. He poured the water in Ziploc bags, and then mailed samples to Dayton.

Prather discovered the quantity of sodium and calcium that fell on her experiment in two days equaled half of the micronutrients she would expect the prairie to receive in a year from average rainfall.

Results from fieldwork in 2017 showed nutrients do indeed make a difference, both in the types of plants that grow and the insects that feed on them. Sodium was the surprising standout. In plots that received the common fertilizers nitrogen and phosphorous plus sodium, insects were 1.5 times more widespread. One species of katydid was especially happy with the combination and increased its population 400 percent. Reihart also uncovered a connection between calcium and crazy ants.

Said Pennings, “We found that micronutrients mattered. What’s less clear is the mechanism.”

Grasshoppers might have preferred the variety of plants that thrived in the sodium plots. It also could be that the leaves themselves taste better with more sodium, or that sodium is a nutrient the insects crave.

“In the same way as in human health, the first order thing you have to do is get enough food,” Pennings said. “But once you’ve got enough food, you start thinking about all the vitamins, is my diet balanced, am I getting the right mixture of different things.”

This summer, they’ll be trapping grasshoppers and giving them a buffet of food choices to better understand the attraction of a high-sodium diet. They’re also in the rare position to compare the prairie before and after a major hurricane. Prather said she expects plots treated with only nitrogen and phosphorous may start to resemble the macronutrient-plus-sodium plots from last year and have more grasshoppers and katydids.

It’s hard to predict. Nature has a lot of natural variability, Prather said. But that means when you find an influence on the environment, you’ve made a discovery in spite of the odds.

While this is the last summer for fieldwork on the NSF project, Prather is eyeing future research opportunities on the UH prairie. She’s also looking to build off the Dayton prairie research of her undergrads, uncovering even more about local insects and their role in the ecosystem.

As she sat in her office, she paused from discussing the project for just a moment, eyes focused on the trees beyond her window. It looks like she’s about to head outdoors again. There’s more to do.

“It really is something that you ask one question,” she said, “and it only uncovers 10 more.”

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Laugh out loud

9:40 AM  Aug 7th, 2018
by Teri Rizvi

Celebrated humorist Erma Bombeck ’49 made the foibles of everyday family life her beat. “My idea of housework,” she infamously wrote, “is to sweep the room with a glance.”

That’s why she might get a kick out of the essays in Laugh Out Loud: 40 Women Humorists Celebrate Then and Now…Before We Forget, a nostalgic, humorous look at life through the ages.

“The stories in this book reflect a philosophy she always believed: If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it,” daughter Betsy Bombeck writes in the preface.

As the founder and director of the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, I’ve encouraged writers for years to find the courage to put their words down on paper, even publish a book.

Yet when prolific author Allia Zobel Nolan approached me about collaborating on a book, I worried about whether we could find the time and discipline to solicit essays, edit the pieces and publish an anthology, all within six months. With the ink barely dry on the first copies, we introduced the book in April at the spring workshop, with half the essayists in attendance for a book signing. Last week, we launched the ebook. Part of the proceeds benefits the workshop’s endowment fund.

One of the contributors has written eight books. Others have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other national and regional publications. A few, like Fritzy Dean, an 82-year-old great grandmother, have never seen their work published in a book.

“Erma Bombeck put women’s humor on the map,” said Nolan, a former senior editor for Reader’s Digest, who has written more than 175 books herself and shepherded this book from concept to creation. “She was to housewives what Spock was to babies. She held up a mirror to her life, burst out laughing, then sat down and chronicled it for millions to enjoy. We hope this book makes readers feel the same way.”

From the beach to bookstores to bars, readers have posted photos of where they’re reading Laugh Out Loud. One was spotted at a “Leprechaun Crossing” outside Dublin; another at the Motor City Comic Con in Michigan. The oldest reader: 93. The youngest: a toddler.

Laugh Out Loud, available on Amazon and in the University of Dayton’s Bookstore, reminds us that laughter is serious business.

“When humor goes,” Erma wrote, “there goes civilization.”

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A witness to faith

11:56 AM  Jul 6th, 2018
by Tom Columbus

Father Kip Stander, S.M. ’73, has served at St. Mary’s University as well as in Kenya and India and, for the last three years, at UD as the University chaplain. We asked him what that entails.

I ask the question, “How did the two of you meet?”

And they answer, “We were involved in a service project our sophomore year. We developed a friendship, dated and grew in our relationship. And here we are today — preparing to get married!”

As I meet with couples, I am invited into special moments in their lives — a blessed aspect of my ministry at UD.

It is a privilege to serve in a position that puts me in touch with UD people at important times in their lives. My specific role is to offer sacramental ministry (Mass, reconciliation) and spiritual guidance to students, a ministry that extends to faculty, staff, alumni and parents.

I interact with them as they graduate, marry, grieve, suffer illness, manage transitions in life, discern the future. This engages, challenges and humbles me.

On campus, our Eucharistic celebration — whether on an evening in a residence hall or a Sunday in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception — is centered on the presence of Christ in word, sacrament and community. We gather to pray and go forth to live God’s message.

At the baccalaureate Masses, as students prepare to go forth from UD, we rejoice with them and their families at the opportunities, the support and the growth that led to this special day.

I meet with many alumni as they return to UD to celebrate their weddings. Often the couple has wonderful stories of career and challenge and commitment.

In time of illness or loss, I am also called upon. Offering support and prayer is both demanding and a grace-filled moment. The individual and family and friends often experience the fragility of life and the prospect of drastic changes in plans and hopes and dreams. In such a troubled and uncertain time, I try to bring witness to faith and community.

I am blessed to minister in this gifted community.

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Three words to live by: Make a difference

10:30 AM  Jun 28th, 2018
by Eric F. Spina

Having attended at least one — and sometimes two or three — commencement ceremonies every year for the past 30 years, and having heard at least one — and sometimes two or three (or four!) — speeches at each of those ceremonies, I consider myself something of a commencement speech connoisseur about what works, what doesn’t, what is memorable, and what isn’t.

I have heard government officials from President Bill Clinton to Chief Justice John Roberts, entertainers from Billy Joel to Aaron Sorkin, media mavens from Bob Woodruff to Donald New- house, and even from the master wordsmith himself, Bill Safire (twice).

Among all these speeches — including the six or eight speeches I myself have given — the single most compelling charge to graduating students came from civil rights leader and master orator Thomas Nathaniel Todd.

His charge — his challenge, in fact — is more fitting for graduates from the University of Dayton than any other college or university, in my opinion. And it is more fitting now than at any other time in our nation’s history.

At spring commencement, I shared his words as a challenge to the Class of 2018:

“Do not use your degree just to make a living. Use your degree to make a difference.”

This is the responsibility a UD diploma carries with it. Our alumni know that. Our alumni live that. As our newly minted graduates leave the comfort zone of campus, they’re entering a world hungry for their gifts.

Our world is hungry for innovative solutions for closing the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Our world is hungry for imaginative ways for improving a public education system that fails too many students and families.

Our world is hungry for the responsible, moral harnessing of technology to improve our lives.

Our world is hungry for respectful dialogue and behavior, for hearts that reject bigotry, and eyes that look with empathy and compassion on all people as children of God.

As I looked out over the sea of joyous faces at the University of Dayton Arena, I saw more than the largest graduating class in our history.

I glimpsed the future.

After living and learning at our Catholic, Marianist university with its dedication to social justice, with its special focus on building community, with its commitment to preparing students to work across differences, these graduates will enter the world prepared to change it.

They will make more than just a living. They will make a difference.

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9:54 AM  Jun 20th, 2018
by Michelle Tedford ’94

At birth, God gives you just five exclamation marks. Use them wisely.

Years ago, amid a painful stretch of copyediting, a writer friend of mine reminded me of this phrase popular among journalists. It came to mind again recently when the exclamation mark on my keyboard stopped working. Having announced neither theater fires nor world wars in my 15 years at UD, I told myself my key died out of neglect, not overuse.

Except that’s not quite true.

First, let me state that punctuation is elegant when used for good. The semicolon is among my favorites; it indicates relationship while allowing a phrase to stand on its own. Even rhetorical questions raise a quiet eyebrow when the correct mark is added — wouldn’t you agree?

There is nothing elegant about the exclamation mark. It stands up on its tippy toe and shouts at you. The party crasher steals your friends and eats all your birthday cake. Yes, it helps you escape an inferno in the nick of time, but I didn’t even consider it worthy of the toaster oven fire I recently extinguished thanks to a pair of potholders and a quick heave out onto the driveway.   

But in our neon world, I have acquiesced. It was apparent when I composed a tweet to the @daymag graduating seniors and had to hit delete twice — leaving a single sentry where three had previously stood. As I’ve coaxed our student writers to curb their enthusiasm, I have found myself closer to a middle ground that would have cost me an A in J-school. It’s the way we now communicate. Even when emailing colleagues, I feel compelled to add an exclamation mark after my terminal “thanks,” lest the reader interpret my gratitude as less than genuine.

As I read the profile of Father Daniel Reehil ’87 in this issue of the magazine (see Page 58), I wondered if the exclamation mark belongs to the cacophony that is stealing our silence. Graduate assistant Joe Oliveri had similar sentiments after last Lent, when he taught students to quiet their minds and open their hearts (see Page 20).

While the exclamation mark is brash, it can also be joyful — just ask the writers of the Psalms. And it is versatile, working well in times of anger and bliss, fear and humor. I have used it in the past more often than I’ve cared to admit, but I will likely use it even more as I find reasons for celebration and connection with the exclamation mark users around me. 

Since my key no longer works without a rousing and repeated barrage, each stroke is a reminder to reconsider both intention and effect — which is good advice for life.

Go Flyers!

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Graduate student Joe Oliveri, deep in thought

Shhhh …

4:34 PM  Jun 15th, 2018
by Rose Rucoba ’19

How do we quiet our minds in an increasingly noisy world?

This is a question Joe Oliveri sought to answer when he created the minicourse The Silent Journey, taught this past spring.

As a graduate assistant in Campus Ministry, Oliveri said he noticed students often telling him how busy their days were, and how the lack of time for silence in their daily lives was affecting their ability to be present in the moment and connect with God.

“Nine times out of 10 if you ask anyone how their day is going, they will answer, ‘Busy.’ This is the noise of the daily life of a college student,” Oliveri said.

In search of answers, he created The Silent Journey to fulfill a requirement in his graduate studies in pastoral ministry.

The group met once a week on Mondays for two hours during Lent. Over the course of their six weeks together, the group took part in contemplative prayer where they meditated on the five silences of Marianist spirituality: silences of words, signs, imagination, mind and passions. These silences, he explained, are about disciplining one’s whole being.

“In short, the five silences are not always to ‘be quiet’ but ways to discipline our words, actions, thoughts, feelings or passions, and imagination in order to live fully in Jesus Christ,” Oliveri said.

He explained that both he and his students struggled throughout the course, finding it difficult to make time for silence as a part of their daily routine. Ultimately, they learned that prayer was more than just silence or lack of words, but it was about becoming more aware of God’s presence.

For those who were not able to take his class or are just looking for ways to find silence in their own lives, Oliveri offered some advice.

“Without picturing me as an old monk on a hillside, I would say, ‘You don’t need to find silence. Let silence find you.’ Yes, it’s deep, but that’s what we are afraid of — going deep,” Oliveri said.

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A portrait of Father Daniel Reehil

Unplugged and on fire: Alumni profile

4:29 PM  Jun 15th, 2018
by Michael Dunekacke

Father Daniel Reehil ’87 will tell you his path to priesthood wasn’t necessarily a pretty one.

“Me and my classmates, we are a part of the first generation to be constantly bombarded by images and sounds,” Reehil said.  “Living in all that noise is the biggest threat to people’s faith in 2018.”

In the late ’90s, Reehil was in the thick of the noise. He was working as a sales director for a major public relations firm on Wall Street, but he was depressed and suffering from the same nightmare every night.

A friend asked him to go with her to the town of Medjugorje, a popular site of Catholic pilgrimage, because she was nervous about traveling to Bosnia alone. Reehil happened to be renting a villa in Italy just across the Adriatic Sea from Medjugorje at the time, and he thought, how different could it be?

“I thought it would be like a vacation,” Reehil said. “It wasn’t. There were no hotels there at that time. You stayed in the homes of the people who lived there.

There were certainly no TVs or anything like that. In fact, there wasn’t even a whole lot of heat.”

But there was definitely a lot of faith. Every day the entire town (a couple of thousand people) attended Mass together.

“It inspired me to go to confession for the first time in 20 years. When I was finished, the priest told me he thought I was being called. Frankly, I thought he hadn’t understood my English that well.”

Twenty years later, as pastor of St. Edward Parish in Nashville, Tennessee, Reehil is fired up about fighting the noise.

“People tell me that they don’t know how to pray,” said Reehil. “Well, first you have to unplug for at least 20 minutes. Prayer needs to be all consuming. Contemplative. I wish everyone could share in that.”

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